The report this week by the international commission on Bahrain represents the royal family’s, and that nation’s, last chance. If the conclusions of the report do not lead to compromise and reform, the future holds instability, violence, and in the end the demise of al-Khalifa rule.
The existence of the report does great credit to King Hamad. When has an Arab government called for a truly honest international assessment of its handling of the most difficult moments of its rule? When has it accepted a report that accuses it of abuse of prisoners, lack of due process, and torture? The king pledged earlier this year that the commission would have a completely free hand, and he was as good as his word.
The picture drawn by the commission is grim, for as one reads the five hundred page document it becomes very clear that the problem was not misconduct by individual officers but a wide pattern of Sunni official abuse of Shia citizens. That conclusion has not been accepted by the government, but it is unavoidable when one sees the magnitude of the abuses.
It doesn’t matter, it seems to me, whether the king uses the word “pattern.” What matters now is not what he says in reaction to the report, but what he does. There are still political prisoners in Bahrain, and hundreds of Shia men and women who have lost government jobs for partisan political reasons have never been reinstated. There are still hundreds of cases of torture and denial of due process whose perpetrators have never been punished. Many times the government has promised that officials who broke the law would be punished, and I have received such promises myself from Bahraini officials: “no impunity.” The time has come to make good on those promises.
It is hard to see how any of this will happen unless the king himself carries through. The royal family is divided, with the prime minister (who is the king’s uncle) leading a hard-line faction and the crown prince a reformist group. What has been missing is another firm decision by the king: having created the commission, and allowed it to do its work freely, he must now act on its findings.
That means real reform and real movement toward constitutional monarchy. This year’s violence and abuses have in fact lost the Sunni al-Khalifa government the consent of the governed among Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Implementation of the report’s recommendations can win it back, and can form a new governing majority of Shia and Sunni who want social peace, economic progress, and a royal family that continues to modernize the country politically as well as economically. Needless to say this will require responsible action by the leading al-Wefaq party among the Shia, but signs are good that some of its key leaders would meet the king half way.
If the king is the key actor, the United States has a critical role to play. The king will be pressured by the Saudi government not to reform at all, but instead to use a firm hand against the Shia. The Saudis want no progress toward constitutional monarchy in this nation on the border of their own heavily Shia Eastern province. They have sided with the prime minister and the hard line faction, and sent troops into Bahrain to press their point. To them, this is about keeping the Shia down not about reform. And to them it is about pushing back against Iranian interference, while the report found that there has been no direct Iranian interference (beyond the use of broadcasting to try to manufacture crises).
The only counterbalance to that Saudi pressure is the United States. We have a serious interest in seeing moderate reform leading to social peace in Bahrain, in part because it is the home of the Fifth Fleet. As soon as this holiday weekend ends, the president should send a very high ranking official to Manama–someone like the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State–to make the point that we appreciated the king’s leadership in commissioning the report and now believe that he should follow its recommendations. This should be stated publicly, while at the same time we push very hard on the Shia political groups to agree to compromise and to turn away from their own hard line factions that seek confrontation and have excessive demands.
We should organize whatever pressure we can for a compromise solution, asking the UK to weigh in with all its remaining influence in Bahrain, which is considerable, asking Shia leaders from Iraq to counsel their cousins to compromise, and seeking whatever moderate counsel from Arab leaders to the king we can round up. We should counsel the Bahraini Shia leaders to push back against their own extremists, and do whatever we can to show respect for the moderate leaders and help build a Shia majority for compromise.
This is probably Bahrain’s last chance so it is worth a strenuous effort on our part. The international commission’s report can be a turning point toward continuing internal reforms and social peace, or a lost opportunity to save Bahrain from turmoil. Let’s hope King Hamad realizes the future of his dynasty depends on the decisions he makes in the coming months.